There is a popular saying in Italian: “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi“. In other words, Christmas is a time for the family, but you can spend Easter with whoever you like. In reality, for most Italians Easter is generally spent with the family. But unlike in the UK, where the schools take a two-week break, here the most you can normally hope for is a long weekend (or 'Ponte' as the Italians like to call it).
That wasn't the case this year, as Easter fell late and ran into the annual 25 April Liberation Day holiday. The authorities, in their infinite wisdom, extended the spring break from Giovedì Santo (Maundy Thursday) up to and including Liberation Day. An unprecedented spring week off!
For us it was the perfect opportunity to get on the road and head for the mountains of the Garfagnana, to spend Easter in Tuscany,
With the formalities and indulgences of Easter dispensed with, Italians generally spend Pasquetta (Easter Monday) in the countryside with friends enjoying a typical barbecue or picnic.
As a regular visitor to Garfagnana, I've long been planning an excursion with Wild Trails, a local tour company that organises hiking trips and adventures in the hills, valleys and mountains of the region. Pasquetta seemed like the ideal opportunity to finally do so.
In truth, the Pasquetta detox tour that we signed up for wasn't so much an adventure as a leisurely amble around the forests, gentle hills and remote villages of the Val di Lima.
But, with an engaging guide and a simple picnic (I can't believe I forgot the wine), it was a pleasant way to spend Easter Monday and offered a tantalising glimpse of what this remote and unspoilt region has to offer.
Next time we might be a little more adventurous. And I'll remember to pack the wine!
This is the third in a series of short articles following a recent trip to Berlin. The first article, A weekend in Berlin, provides some historical context while the second, A bike tour through Stasiland, describes a bike trip from Neukölln, taking in the Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park, the Stasi Museum and the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial.
This article recalls an unforgettable football match at the incomparable "Stadium by the old forester's house" (Stadion An der Alten Försterei) of FC Union Berlin.
For football fans visiting Berlin, the obvious impulse is to go to the cavernous Olympic Stadium and see Hertha Berlin, the city's most famous club (currently behind only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga). Indeed, I did the same myself on a previous visit.
But, for a more fulfilling experience, you would be better advised to head out of town to the forrest of Köpenick. Here you will find the Stadion An der Alten Försterei, home of FC Union Berlin. Playing in the German second tier, there is nothing second division about the atmosphere inside the ground. With only 3,500 seats in a stadium with a capacity of a little over 22,000, the place was literarily bouncing. It's a stadium purpose built for football, with no athletics track to create a gap between the fans and the action. The stadium hosts a stunning annual christmas carol service (Weihnachtssingen 2015) and in 2014 the club allowed fans to bring their own sofas to the ground to watch World Cup matches on the stadium's big screens (Fans leap off the sofa at 5-0 lead over Brazil)!
The football wasn't half bad either. A three-one victory over a well supported TSV Eintracht Braunschweig side, including a goal by promising young Hawaiin striker Bobby Wood (who Liverpool are reportedly following closely), and a brace from Croatian midfielder Damir Kreilach. Everyone in the stadium was on their feet for the entire match and the singing, chanting and drumming didn't relent for a single moment, creating an unforgettable atmosphere. With beer available from roaming vendors and delicious steak burgers on sale at half-time, supporting FC Union Berlin was a truly memorable way to spend a fantastic evening in the German capital!
As we begin to look forward to the next round of the Six Nations matches, I thought I'd take the opportunity to look back at my recent visit to Rome, which included the annual "Wooden spoon decider" between Scotland and Italy.
I had taken the early morning train from Verona and was in Rome by 10.30 am. As the persistent rain showed no signs of abating, I quickly dropped my bags off at one of the many budget hotels near the station and was soon on my way towards Piazza del Popolo, the large urban square to the north of the historic centre that was the muster point for many Scottish fans heading to the game.
By now the rain had stopped and, coming from the sub-alpine conditions of the north to the temperate subtropical mediterranean climate of Rome, I was beginning to feel rather overdressed. Most of my compatriots were far more suitably attired in short-sleeved rugby tops and kilts.
My companions for the day were all long-standing veterans on the international rugby circuit and, I'm pleased to say, brought their cumulative experience to bear on proceedings. They had made reservations at ristorante pizzeria “Il Vignola", which was as authentic a taste of Rome as I have ever experienced - including the famous pasta cacio e pepe (on previous visits I had usually settled for the standard tourist fare to be found in the historic centre). The food, wine, beer, service and company were all first class. The perfect prelude to the match. Il Vignola had the added benefit of being almost equidistant between Piazza del Popolo and Stadio Olympico (I told you these guys were good).
Suitably refreshed we made our way the short distance to the stadium - the magnificent Stadio Olympico.
There was a real carnival atmosphere in the area surrounding the stadium (the magnificent Foro Italico), with marquees, bars and entertainment for the nearly 70,000 fans who were by now flooding through the security perimeter.
Although I vaguely remembered reading something about the fascist origins of this magnificent sporting complex, the details, like my general state after such an indulgent lunch, were somewhat hazy.
Hazy or not, the tell-tale signs of fascist era architecture were striking.
Simple but grandiose, Foro Italico, Rome's magnificent sports complex, is littered with 15 foot tall marble sculptures depicting muscular Italian athletes in various semi-erotic (to me anyway) poses. Fascist architects in the 1920s and 1930s drew inspiration from classical Roman buildings, but while Roman design has ornate details and rounded edges, fascist buildings are generally cold and forbidding. Symmetry, straight lines and simplicity were the order of the day. The ancillary buildings surrounding the stadium were designed in exactly this way.
Foro Italico was originally known as Foro Mussolini. Inspired by the Roman forums of the imperial age, it was designed by Enrico Del Debbio and, later, Luigi Moretti. Built between 1928 and 1938, it remains one of the preeminent examples of Italian fascist era architecture.
The match itself passed in a bit of a blur - something to do with a never-ending hip flask of whisky and the proximity of the in-stadium bar. For the record, Scotland won 36-20, ending a ten-game losing streak and, in the process, racked up the most points they have scored in a single Six Nations match.
Flooding out of the stadium after the game, most fans seemed oblivious to the significance of the 50-foot obelisk that bears the inscription “Mussolini Dux”.
It is the world's greatest surviving monument to the fascist dictator.
While some may argue that such monuments have no place in modern sport, I rather enjoyed my afternoon in Rome's playground built by fascists.
I would even go as far as to say that I appreciated the aesthetic beauty and efficient functionality of the Foro.
The Mussolini Obelix, more than anything else, stands as a lasting reminder of the perils of fascism and the tragic absurdity of its vainglorious leader.
Click here to read more about the dark history of Rome's Stadio Olympico with the Gentleman Ultra.